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Poetry

Poems for Parting

By Du Mu
Translated from Chinese by David Young & Jiann I. Lin
These ancient poems about the beginning and end of a love affair were written during the Tang Dynasty, considered the greatest era of Chinese poetry. Many poets of that era believed in seeing "the big within the small"—finding emotional or philosophical meanings through close observations of a few images.

1

So slender and so graceful
not much more than thirteen

the tip of a cardamom branch in spring
just about to bud

ten miles down the Yangzhou road
and the spring winds were blowing

lots of women since, bead curtains lifting,
but never like that again.

2

Too much love
somehow became
no love at all

over this farewell bottle
we can’t manage
even a friendly smile

only the candle
seems to be able
to generate some feeling

all night
it weeps
little wax tears.

Read Bios Context Explore Teaching Ideas

1

So slender and so graceful
not much more than thirteen

the tip of a cardamom branch in spring
just about to bud

ten miles down the Yangzhou road
and the spring winds were blowing

lots of women since, bead curtains lifting,
but never like that again.

2

Too much love
somehow became
no love at all

over this farewell bottle
we can’t manage
even a friendly smile

only the candle
seems to be able
to generate some feeling

all night
it weeps
little wax tears.

Du Mu

Du Mu (803-52) is, among the masters of the late Tang dynasty, especially admired for his skill with short poems, many of which were composed in the New Style quatrain.

David Young (translator)

David Young is well known as a translator from the Chinese from his Five Tang Poets (Oberlin College Press, 1990). He and Jiann I. Lin collaborated previously on The Clouds Float North (Wesleyan,1998),a collection of poems by Yu Xuan-ji, a short-lived but brilliant woman poet from the late Tang.

Jiann I. Lin (translator)

Jiann I. Lin collaborated previously with David Young on The Clouds Float North (Wesleyan,1998), a collection of poems by Yu Xuan-ji, a short-lived but brilliant woman poet from the late Tang.

Meet Du Mu and His Translators

Find out more about this poem, Du Mu, and the translation process in a special WWB Campus excerpt from translators David Young and Jiann I. Lin’s book Out on the Autumn River: Selected Poems of Du Mu.

Then, find out how many ways there are to translate a single line of Chinese poetry into English.

Read the Original*

Look at the poem in the original Chinese, and read a few alternative translations: “On Parting,” with a word-by-word translation on the left-hand side; and “Given on Parting II,” with yet another translation in the comments.

* For Teaching Idea 2 

Jueju and Other Forms That Inspire

These poems are written in a poetic form called a jueju, which means “cut-off lines.” To write a jueju, a poet needs to create matching couplets with five to seven syllables per line. Learn more about this form and read another example, “The River’s Blue, The Bird a Perfect White,” by Du Mu.

Then, find out about a particular kind of jueju that may have guided the writing of individual lines in the poem:  qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé (起承轉合)pronounced in Mandarin and Cantonese by Haisi Hu.  

This later evolved into the form sometimes known as “Kishōtenketsu” (in the Japanese pronunications.) 

Go Back in Time to the Tang Dynasty

Tang Dynasty-era sculpture of a woman. CC BY-SA 2.0.

This poem was written during China’s Tang Dynasty era, which spanned from 618 to 907 C.E. Look at art from the era with the Metropolitan Museum’s slideshow of Tang Dynasty art. Then, hear Tang-Dynasty-era music and find out how people were able to recreate it in this 7-minute radio story: “Keeping China’s Ancient Music Alive.” 

Finally, watch a video of dance in the Tang dynasty tradition:

(Watch on YouTube.)

Want more? Find out about everyday life at the time his poem was written with the academic book Daily Life in Traditional China, by Charles Benn.

Chinese History

Get a better sense of China’s long history with this timeline. The Tang Dynasty era was from 618 to 907 C.E. and appears roughly in the middle of the chart, between the Sui and Five Dynasties eras.

Then, read about the history of the Tang Dynasty in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  

More Poetry from Translators David Young and Jiann I. Lin

Read original poetry from translator David Young and visit his website.  

For more Tang Dynasty-era poetry translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin, read Du Fu: A Life in Poetry. Educators: To teach a single poem by Du Fu, using Young and Lin’s translation, among others, try the lesson plan “Reading a Tang Dynasty Poem“, available from the China Institute’s China 360 website. 

Translating Tang Poems

Find out why another translator, Arthur Sze, considers translation “the most intimate form of reading” in the video below. 

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

History of Chinese Poetry

Learn about the history of Chinese poetry in this short article.

The "glorious, glamorous" Tang Dynasty

How do you think the woman in this poem might have dressed? Watch Chinese Fashion Through the Dynasties, a series of “fashion tips” based on ancient Chinese styles. (The “glorious, glamorous” Tang Dynasty starts at about 4:40.) 

Then, decide whether using those tips might be considered “cultural appropriation” with the help of this New York Times op-ed, written by a high school student.

Women in the Tang Dynasty

Read The Clouds Float North, a collection of poems by one of the few women poets of the Tang Dynasty era, Yu Xuanji, translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin.

A Great Empress?

Learn about Empress Wu, the most powerful woman of the Tang Dynasty era, and find out why so many people hated her in “The Demonization of Empress Wu,” in Smithsonian Magazine

Tang Dynasty's Legacy

Read “Modern Variations on China’s Ancient Themes,” which talks about the meaning of the Tang Dynasty era to people today.

Then, read about why China’s first heavy metal band is also called “Tang Dynasty,” and watch one of the band’s videos below.  

Write Like It's the Tang Dynasty Era

Learn how to compose and analyze poetry and calligraphy with the free online course Cosmopolitan Tang: Aristocratic Culture, from Harvard.

Contemporary Asian Voices

Cover of the Korean YA novel Wizard Bakery.

For a modern example of the four-part Kishōtenketsu structure, read the Korean story “Wizard Bakery.”

Or, if you’re looking for more poems, check out the Poetry Foundation’s “Asian American Voices in Poetry” collection.

More Poems from the Tang Dynasty Era *

For another poem from Tang Dynasty era, published on this site, try Li Bai’s “Poem to the Tune ‘Pure Peace,'” or read through the online anthologies 300 Tang Poems and Chinese Poems.  

Read another Tang Dynasty-era poem about parting, Li Po’s “Exile’s Letter,” loosely translated by Ezra Pound. If you enjoyed that poem, you may be interested in more translations of Li Po’s work.

Interested in strictly emulating the jueju form? Take a look at the blog post Writing an English Lushi (and/or Jueju), or a very detailed set of Basic Rules for Jueju Poetry.

* For Teaching Idea 1 

To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

1

So slender and so graceful
not much more than thirteen

the tip of a cardamom branch in spring
just about to bud

ten miles down the Yangzhou road
and the spring winds were blowing

lots of women since, bead curtains lifting,
but never like that again.

2

Too much love
somehow became
no love at all

over this farewell bottle
we can’t manage
even a friendly smile

only the candle
seems to be able
to generate some feeling

all night
it weeps
little wax tears.

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